Teaching Literacy through Literature: Opening doors to opportunity

By Bob Cox


Do you sometimes find that teaching English (particularly in the Primary phase) can feel like covering ground, ticking boxes or even glossing over fascinating language for the sake of coverage? Exploiting the rich potential of challenging texts provides opportunities to delve deeper, mine text potential and teach literacy in context, offering more reflecting, exploring and immersion in key concepts.

Over the past couple of decades, I have been supporting a network of UK schools which are ‘opening doors’ to new knowledge and learning for all pupils. At the heart of this approach is the use of high-pitch techniques and mindsets which facilitate the richest possible primary English curriculum, all based on a range of resources from picture books and children’s literature to classic texts and poetry. We advocate a pitching high and including all approach to English which ensures both equity and excellence; and above all, we work with schools on exactly how this can be done.

In this approach, there are opportunities to use a text as the hub of English; not just ‘doing’ a text or ‘covering’ a poem, but truly mining the beauty and power of story and rhythm to inspire learners. This begins a journey towards teaching of English within a context.

Suppose you reflect upon the ways you teach English for a moment. In your lessons, are there opportunities for in-depth language study, recitation, echoing of phrases and building an appreciation of words and varied styles? If not, this is where English teaching can become lost and with it, pupils’ enthusiasm and enjoyment too.

Teaching via concepts provides multi-layered possibilities to explore aspects of English with literacy skills an integral part, always emphasising reading for meaning as a daily classroom habit.

Here is an example – let’s start with the illustration below by Victoria Cox.1

What might the footprints signify?
What might the theme of the poem be? How do you know?
What questions are in your mind?

The buzz will be huge if your pupils work around the illustration with post-it notes and it’s inevitable that vocabulary explorations will evolve. This can be developed further by generating question prompts based on the pupils’ answers. Examples would be asking for any connections that can be made with other texts or moving the discussion around the emotions suggested by the picture.

A personal response to a text can light up interactions with language and it’s this response which can act as a stepping stone to comprehension as well as enjoyment of English.

You could then offer pupils the first two lines of the poem that inspired the illustration, ‘Lonely Street’ by Francisco Lopez Merino, and you are beginning to reach for your concept – effective image making!

‘I love the humble silence of this street
embellished with quiet trees’

You could call this the ‘slow sliver of text’ approach. During my work with schools, I have found that limiting the cognitive load in terms of perceived words, length of text and perhaps intimidating content really does work; but do keep the challenge of the rich text and link in other poems whenever appropriate.

Go slowly but go deeper!

If you are utilising an easily accessible text, there is less to say, fewer fascinating questions to pose and connections across the concept are harder to find. Here, we can be exploring how well a key image – that of silence – is being expressed.

‘What does humble silence mean to you?’
‘How can a tree be quiet?’
‘What does embellished mean?’

I advocate the use of ambitious texts and spending longer on these, to promote questioning opportunities for the kind of learning that can be memorised and understood. Your pupils can wrap the teaching of a key image in a poem around a box in their mind, forming a schema which makes coherent sense. It’s something they can return to and the concept can be repeated through the curriculum, but with a more challenging text each term or year. Other poems which feature sophisticated image-making can be linked in to nestle into that schema. You could consider some of the poems at the foot of the article, or in my new book Opening Doors to Ambitious Primary English.

There are opportunities here too for spelling tuition on the ‘ie’ of ‘quiet’ and perhaps compared with ‘quite’. Again, the lists and the playing with words are all part of the same objective of learning about key images. ‘Embellished’ of course with the double ‘l’ could lead into all sorts of spelling patterns and etymology too. On looking up more information, I found that the word may derive from old French ‘embellir’ (make beautiful) and that helps us all with the double ‘l’. Also, the Latin ‘bellus’, meaning handsome or pretty, has influenced the history of the word.

I didn’t know any of this! Using ambitious texts is CPD every day in the classroom for everyone and you will be inspired to explore language as much as your pupils.

As this stage in the learning, creative taster drafts are possible – word or time limited – to start crafting lines or stanzas on ‘silence’ and how it might be summed up. A ‘taster’ is of course a kind of short burst writing and schools in our Opening Doors network have boosted writing standards hugely by regular tasters early in the process so that author’s styles can be imitated and assessment for learning can take understanding on further. Keep the examples in books, link them to other tasters if needed and use them as frameworks for sustained writing later. There is always plenty of opportunity for teacher expertise to be more directly transmitted – the idea is teaching into the gaps in pupil knowledge/skills, ready for the next stage of learning. A taster draft should be a vital part of a vision for English, not a discrete exercise.

This chunking of knowledge ensures the learning is for all pupils, but nothing is understood easily even by advanced learners. The text offers so much! You could link the beginning with these lines:

where no soul has ever gone by except that of the wind

I wonder if your pupils could try to place the silence in a new setting, one with a wind or breeze paramount? What matters is again experimenting with key images and a second taster draft is an option. All the tasters can later be linked together to form a draft for a full poem. Some pupils won’t need this; but you have the structures and scaffolding throughout this sequence to teach those who might. Try not to pre-empt it! With high pitch work, the mindset is very much giving support when needed.

These are just snippets of possibilities from the big principles and opening doors toolkit being used by a vast network of UK schools. Literacy can be infused through these exciting literature journeys as a classroom habit which supports coherence in English.

Reading, writing, speaking and listening are the four modes of language – that’s English! Literacy outcomes are a vital part of it.

1Lonely Street by Francisco Lopez Merino is featured as a whole unit of work in Opening Doors to Quality Writing, ages 6-9: Opening Doors to Quality Writing – Crown House Publishing


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